Monday, November 13, 2023

Bhutan ✈ Making Memories with Mom 2023

Continuing with my 'Making Memories with Moms' series in 2022, I am back with another trip with mom in this year. This time, our destination was the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan is one of the countries I wanted to visit while I was in this part of the world. Even though our spontaneous 3D2N journey to Bhutan was short, I am thankful for the opportunity to visit this fascinating and beautiful country with momFrom the challenging hike to the tranquility of the monasteries, our trip was a whirlwind of experiences and adventures. 

Trip Planning
The planning for this trip started in March 2023 when I knew that I was going to be in India for work this year. However, we only booked everything for this trip within 10 days of departure. Unlike many other destinations where I could 'travel hack' to reduce the travel cost, Bhutan is one that was expensive no matter how I 'hacked' it. When I say expensive, I meant approximately $2,000 for 2 person for our 3D2N trip, before even stepping foot in the country, and this did not include any ground costs yet. Scroll to the end for breakdown of our total costs for this 3D2N trip. =)

11 June 2023 (Sun): Kolkata - Paro - Tiger Nest - Le Meridien Thimphu

Departed the hotel at 5am. There were no traffic and we arrived Kolkata airport at 5.20am. Our flight was the first international flight to depart that morning so the international flights check-in area was pretty empty. Check-in was quick and easy. The staff only asked to look at our e-visa and return flight booking.

We had 3 hours to wait so we visited the Travel Club Lounge with my Priority Pass. This lounge was very small but at least it was quiet and empty when we were there. 

This Bhutan Airlines flight came from Bangkok with a quick stop to pick up passengers from Kolkata before heading to Paro. There were already some passengers onboard who came from Bangkok when we boarded the flight.

On time departure at 8.15am for this 1 hour flight from Kolkata to Paro. The flight was quite empty so mom and I each had a row of 3 to ourselves. A snack bag was provided. It was a clear day and the pilot pointed out the Himalayan mountains and Mt. Everest on the left side of the plane.

Bhutan Airlines routes. The flight from Kolkata to Paro doesn't operate every day so we were stuck with traveling on Sunday - Tuesday to fit the timing of our 3D2N stay.

Surrounded by mountains as we were approaching Paro airport. Paro airport is known as one of the world's most challenging airports to land due to the location of the airport, which is in a valley surrounded by towering mountains. Only few pilots are certified to fly into Bhutan's only airport. Sam Chui has a good video with cockpit view of this landing.
Landed at Paro airport at 9.50am. Paro Airport is uniquely designed in traditional Bhutan architecture style. There were no jetbridge at this airport and everyone gets to walk freely on the tarmac, and took all the photos/videos we! It was a clear day and the temperature was nice at 24c with light happy for such a beautiful weather!

Welcome to the Kingdom of Bhutan! Immigration was super quick and smooth. We got in line at 10am and were through by 10.07am. The only thing the immigration officer looked at was our printed visa and asked when we were leaving. They didn't even ask for our hotel nor tour guide information. The baggage carousel was so pretty.

Our tour guide, Mr. Karma, was waiting for us outside of the airport and welcomed us with a khata (white scarf) which symbolizes welcome.

Karma led us to our transportation for two days...this big van for just for the 2 of! 

Our original plan was to go to Thimphu for sightseeing then hike Tiger Nest the next day. However, since the weather was so beautiful and it was forecasted to be cloudy the next day, we asked Karma if we could go ahead and hike up Tiger Nest. Tiger Nest was the main reason I came to Bhutan and I didn't want to 'waste' such beautiful weather.

We arrived the entrance of Tiger Nest at 10.55am and Karma helped to buy our tickets for BTN1000 ($12) per person. P.S. Bhutan Ngultrum and Indian Rupee is almost equivalent and INR is accepted everywhere in Bhutan (INR is actually preferred) so I was able to just use my INR for this trip without exchanging any BTN.

There is an option to take a horse for the first half of the hike for BTN/INR 1500 ($18). Since we started our hike late (most people start hiking around 6-7am) and considering it may be physically challenging for mom, we opted for mom to ride the horse while Karma and I hiked together. Btw, it wasn't cold at all, mom wore the jacket just to avoid the sun.

The first half of the hike took about an hour. The trail was well-paved and the view was nice but oh boy I was gasping for breath throughout the hike. Certainly overestimated my fitness level and wished I had taken the horse at many points during the hike. Due to the last minute change in plan, I was also inappropriately dressed wearing jeans in the hot weather. Thank goodness Karma helped to carry my backpack the entire hike and patiently waited as I took many many breaks. He also carried extra bottles of water for us.

Finally made it to the mid-point of the hike at 12.10pm and mom was already waiting as she reached way ahead of us. Still a long way to hike to our destination as you can see...

Mom turning the prayer wheel while I took a break for 10 minutes and took some photos.

We then stopped at Taktsang Cafeteria for 30 minutes for lunch break and more photos. Saw a Singaporean tour group at the cafeteria who are already on their way downhill.

Continued our 2nd half of the uphill hike at 12.50pm. I am so thankful to our tour guide, Karma, for helping and supporting mom the entire hike (on top of carrying my backpack). P.S. Mom is 67 this year so it's pretty good that she is still fit enough to do this hike.

First glimpse of the Tiger Nest at 2.15pm. This is the first viewpoint...not the best one yet.

Finally made it to the main viewpoint of this iconic landmark of Bhutan at! It's amazing how the temple was built on the side of the cliff. This magnificent view of Tiger Nest was the main reason I wanted to come to Bhutan...mission accomplished!

Took too may photos and videos here and I can't choose the best so I decided to just share all these same same but different!

Think we were done with the hike? Not yet! Gotta go downhill then uphill again through all these steps to get to the temple...why???? So near yet so far...the temple was the only thing that was keeping us motivated. I was already thinking about all the steps we'd have to climb back up later. =.=

Quick photo stop at this waterfall before more steps...

Made it through the final flight of steps and arrived at the temple 3.15pm after hiking for 4hr 15 min...definitely felt a sense of accomplishment reaching this sacred site. No cameras allowed in the temple so we deposited our belongings here before entering.

Spent 1.5 hours touring the temple and I felt like we were the last tourists for the day. 

We started our hike back at 4.40pm. Remember all the steps we were going down earlier, this was the 'fun' part climbing back up all those steps. =.=

We were the last ones to leave the temple and all the tourists were gone so we had the trail all to ourselves and our hike back was tranquil and peaceful. One benefit of starting our hike late, the sun was shining on the temple at 5pm which was perfect for photos.

We were so lucky with this beautiful weather coz monsoon season had started already.

Fun fact...Bhutan is the ONLY carbon negative country in the world and more than 70% of the country is covered in forests. The Kingdom is undoubtedly one of the greenest countries in the world. It absorbs more greenhouse gases than it emits. 

Few more photos of this magnificent view before we bid goodbye.

Prayer flags along the hike.

Benefit of doing this hike in the summer...longer days as the sun sets only around 6.40pm. Along the way, we saw a monk and horses carrying goods to the temple. The monk was going to the temple for meditation.

Going downhill was certainly much easier and faster. 

Finally completed our hike at 6.35pm after 7.5 hours roundtrip hike! Time for a 2-hour drive to Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan where we were staying for the night. Mom and I napped almost the entire way and it was already dark by the time we arrived Thimphu. Drove by Memorial Choten on our way to the hotel.

Finally made it to our hotel at 8.30pm! It had been a loooong day as we were up since 4am, traveled from India to Bhutan, and completed a 7.5 hour hike. The hotel staff welcomed us with khata and asked us to take a seat while they completed our check-in. 

Thank you Le Meridien Thimphu for the complimentary upgrade to the Junior Suite (401).

The hotel also gave us some welcome snacks. Ordered room service for dinner at 9.40pm...our first full meal for the day...whoops! 

12 June 2023 (Mon): Le Meridien Thimphu - Buddha Point - Paro Dzong - Le Meridien Paro

We asked Karma to come pick us up later so we had a leisurely morning. If you think I 'tortured' mom with the hike the day're incorrect. She still had energy to go for a swim at the indoor heated pool, while I was still recovering from the!

Complimentary buffet breakfast (brunch for us) at the hotel at 9.30am.

After a relaxing morning, we checked out and started day 2 of our tour at 11am.

Our first stop of the day...Buddha Point at 11.30am. This gigantic Buddha statue was built in 2015 to honor the 60th birthday of Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan. No photos allowed inside the building but there are 125,000 miniature Buddhas encapsulated inside to represent the population in Thimphu at that time.

So glad we decided to do the Tiger Nest hike yesterday as it was cloudy and gloomy on the 2nd day. Another fun fact...there is no traffic light in Bhutan, and the photo on the top right is the busiest street in Bhutan with a traffic police guiding traffic in the roundabout.

Thimphu Dzong from far. We didn't visit this dzong as we were planning to go to Paro Dzong later. Besides, this dzong has entrance fee while Paro Dzong is free.

That's all for our quick tour of Thimphu. Time to drive through the mountains back to Paro. Bhutan is a very mountainous country. Even though the weather was not as pretty as the day before, we were still lucky that it didn't rain.

Drove through Paro town and made a quick stop for Karma to pick up his format outfit before heading to Paro Dzong. 

Our 2nd (and last) stop for the day...Paro Dzong. There weren't any other tourists around when we arrived at 2.30pm. There is no entrance fee for this dzong. The security guard said no short sleeves/shorts so Karma helped us get our jackets from the van.

The dzongs in Bhutan serve two main purposes...administrative (government office) and religious (monastery). Bhutan is the only Buddhist Kingdom in the world and Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan. It is impressive that even with globalization, Bhutan has been able to preserve their Buddhist traditions.

Cool architecture in Paro Dzong. The multi-coloured wood, small arched windows and sloped roofs are definitely prominent features of the architectures in Bhutan. 

View of Paro from Paro Dzong.

After spending about an hour in Paro Dzong, we drove through Paro town again to head to our hotel. I was suprised to see Uniqlo here. 

Paro Dzong a different view point.

Final photo stop before heading back to the hotel. Took a selfie with our super helpful tour guide, Karma, before we wrapped up our tour. P.S. Bhutanese wear their national dress on a daily basis. Men wear the gho while women wear kira.

Arrived Le Meridien Paro Riverfront at 4pm and invited Karma to have late lunch / early dinner with us at the hotel restaurant. Tried some local Bhutanese dishes.

Thank you Le Meridien Paro for the complimentary upgrade to a Corner Suite (0314), welcome snack, and beautiful deco on the bed to welcome us!

 View of the river and stupa from our room.

The hotel doesn't have a lounge so they offered happy hour for Marriott elite members at the bar in the lobby. We were the only ones there for the Happy! We made ourselves comfortable and hung out there enjoying the food and drinks until it got dark. 

Mom had red wine while I had the Druk (not drunk) beer. We ordered each of the vegetarian and non-vegetarian platter from the club lounge menu. This was too much 'food' to be considered 'snack'. It took awhile for the food to be served but we're thankful to have all these for free during happy hour. =)

13 June 2023 (Tues): Paro - Kolkata

Complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel before checking out.

Came out to take some photos of the hotel surroundings before checking out at 8.30am.

Goodbye Le Meridien Paro! The airport was only a short 5 minutes drive from hotel.

Arrived the airport at 8.45am for our 10.35am flight. Nice interior at the airport. There was ATM in the airport but I don't think it'd work for our international atm cards.

Goodbye Bhutan! Thank you for the spectacular sceneries and wonderful weather!

Departed Paro on time at 10.45am and lnded in Kolkata an hour later at 11.15am (there is a 30 min time difference between India and Bhutan). There were a lot of locals on this flight but they were all continuing their journey to Bangkok after a quick stop in Kolkata. 

That's a wrap for our Bhutan trip! Back to the familiar sights and sounds of Kolkata. I'm glad mom was able to get a double-entry visa for India, which made this trip possible.

This trip was certainly a good reminder to explore and travel more while I am still able-bodied and have the ability to do so, and to stay healthy so that I can still do crazy things like these for many years to come. Completing the Tiger Nest hike was certainly an accomplishment for mom and I am thankful for the opportunity to continue making crazy memories like this with her. much did this 3D2N trip cost???  

Trip Expenses

SDF and Visa - $912
Bhutan is expensive mainly because of the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of $200/night/pax, which was required for all tourists visiting the country (at the time of our travel in June 2023), and does not include anything else. This fee is imposed to promote the country's High Value Low Volume tourism policy but even the local tour guides felt that $200 was too expensive. I applied for our visa online, uploaded the information required (passport, photo, proof of travel insurance), and paid a total fee of $912 ($800 SDF fees for 2 pax for 2 days, visa application fee of $40/pax, and processing charges of $30). I was able to use my US credit card to make the payment and received our e-visa the next day.
P.S. This fee has dropped to $100/night/pax as of September 2023. =.=

Flights - $850
There are cheaper options to travel by land from India to Bhutan but we didn't have much time so we opted to fly roundtrip from Kolkata. There are only 2 airlines that fly to Paro - Bhutan Airlines and Drukair, and we couldn't use airline points to redeem for any of these flights so we booked our tickets on Bhutan Airlines' website for $425/pax. 

Hotel - $0
Fortunately, there are 2 Le Meridien hotels in Bhutan - Le Meridien Thimphu and Le Meridien Paro Riverfront, and I was able to redeem 2 nights for 22,000 and 31,000 Marriott points per night, respectively. We received complimentary upgrade to the suites in both hotels so our redemption 'value' was $1,400 for 2 nights. 

Tour Guide & Transportation - $270
I reached out to both Le Meridien Paro and Le Meridien Thimpu to inquire about tour guide/package for our stay. I probably could have gotten a tour guide/package at a lower cost without going through the hotels but I opted to go with Le Meridien Paro as I made the booking quite late, and the reservation team was flexible in catering for my requests.

Meals - $114
We ate in the hotel for all meals and was able to save some money with the complimentary breakfast and happy hour. Our room service in Le Meridien Thimphu costs BTN 5158 ($64) and lunch in Le Meridien Paro was BTN 4080 ($50). 

TOTAL COSTS for 2 Pax: $2,146

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